Encore: "Both Sacred and Profane": Lessons from a Crematory

Oct 26, 2017

When her husband died, Brenda, an Iowa City resident, struggled to explain the death to her four sons. So she turned to a person who handles death for a living: her husband’s funeral director.

“He had just finished cremating my husband’s body, and the boys got to feel the ashes, and they were still warm. It really helped them realize what was happening, because they didn’t see the body and they weren’t there when the coroner was there. He talked them through it and told them what happened and it really was wonderful.”

But this hands-on, direct approach to death isn’t always the norm. Caitlin Doughty, a California-based mortician who wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, says our culture has evolved to make death invisible.

“You know theoretically that these people are dying but you just don’t see them. […] 100 years ago, we had people in the parlors of our homes, you’d walk down the street and you would know who was in mourning and you would know where the dead were. But that’s just not the case anymore.”

And that, Doughty believes, leads to phobia of death, and prevents open dialogue, particularly with children.

“If it’s done correctly, a child can absolutely be introduced to death at a very young age in a rational and open way and know that if they have questions or concerns or fears that those are totally normal and that there are adults that aren’t terrified of death available to answer them.”

Doughty’s organization, The Order of the Good Death, is trying to create a world populated by those un-terrified adults. Both Doughty and Michael Lensing, owner of Lensing Funeral & Cremation Service in Iowa City, believe a crucial step towards that end is engaging in the funeral process in some way.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of [with] the body, here’s somebody you’ve cared for your whole life. What you’re afraid of is what that body represents. Nobody wants to see a loved one who’s died, and yet it’s a part of life. I think the idea of ritual is so important in what we do, it doesn’t matter if it’s a religious ritual, whatever it is, you need to be able to say goodbye in some form. For some people that may be helping dress the body, that may be touching the body.”

Because of this philosophy, Lensing spends a large amount of time discussing options with the family of the deceased, options that go beyond simply cremation vs. burial, like pressing the button to start the cremation process or bringing the body to their house for a home-based visitation.

Doughty says that alternative or unconventional funeral practices, like the family taking care of the body, natural burial and witness cremation, often go completely undiscussed.

“Most people didn’t know that they had those options […] that they didn’t have to do the same scriptures, they didn’t have to do this thing that didn’t mean a lot to them, that the options are wide open, and that the good death could be defined by you and your family and what you believe in and what rituals you want and what the person was like.”

Doughty says even in the short four years she’s been public in her advocacy, she’s seen an explosion of conversation surrounding end-of-life care.

“There really is a renaissance in how we’re handling death. And the internet speeds that up, our communication speeds that up. So we’re in a good time. It’s a good time to be in death."

Editor’s note: This show originally aired on October 27, 2014.